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Doing More for Child Protection, Fostering and Community Support

Parliamentary Speech for Children & Young Persons (Amendment) Bill, 3 Sep 2019

Introduction

Mr. Speaker, I commend the Bill for increasing support for children and young persons including up to 18 years which brings us in ratification with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, I am especially heartened that the Bill now includes emotional harm as a form of ill-treatment, thereby allowing affected children and young persons to be protected by the Bill and allows older youth offenders to have more rehabilitative options.

Psychosocial Effects: Proposed Use of Mechanical Restraints

And yet, in the very same Bill that recognises emotional harm as a form of ill-treatment, a new Section 68A proposes the use of mechanical restraints on children and young persons. “Mechanical restraints” refer to handcuffs, leg braces, flexi cuffs or any similar means of restraint. This is disturbing, especially given the psychological risks and effects on the use of physical restraints. A 2008 research by Cornell University found restraints to be “a considerable risk to vulnerable youth, are intrusive, have a negative effect on the treatment environment, and have a profound effect on those youth who have experienced trauma in their lives.”

It is also not clear to me if there are any guidelines on its use. Or if restraints should only be used after less intrusive methods have been applied and deemed ineffective. Especially when there are already therapeutic and trauma-informed alternatives as well as environmental interventions available. Such as a padded room to prevent self harm or a Calming Room to manage aggressive/violent behaviour.

In fact, I believe this is already a MSF requirement for all children’s homes in keeping with the Standards of Care for Children & Young Persons Homes [MSF, Standards of Care for Children and Young Persons Homes. 1 Nov 2017 / p12]. Also, I understand that one out of three Care staff have also been sent for the Management of Actual or Potential Aggression (MAPA®) training programme to ensure that personnel involved in handling crisis situations, can maintain the Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security of all involved. So, I am not sure if I understand the intent and need for Section 68A. Can the Minister please clarify?

Investing in Families

Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity with the Bill to discuss what more we can do to invest in families so as to support and protect our children, given that ‘family’ is one of the three principles of our social safety net.

Parents and guardians are expected to exercise responsibility for their children but I would argue if families are adequately enabled and empowered. Because we all know that there are many ways in which a family situation may manifest itself depending on the parenting attitudes as well as who are the present and absent family members, their dynamics, needs and aspirations.

Take Farhana, 47 and a single mother living at Yio Chu Kang who used to struggle with raising her five children. She barely had time for herself with taking care of the children and trying to earn some money from home so she often felt exhausted trying to hold it all together. At times, she also resorted to physical methods with her children. When her eldest child was not attending school regularly, the state intervened and later found out about the abuse. She was then required to attend counselling/therapy sessions. Ironically, the well-meaning sessions which were meant to help her and her children saw her in even more emotional distress which clearly also affects the psychosocial wellbeing of her children. Perhaps the support for Farhana should have come earlier?

I would like to urge the Ministry to strongly consider providing preemptive support programmes for at-risk families before we get to the vicious trap that Farhana faced. Family service centres when working with families could suggest counselling or parenting courses if the staff are also trained to assess parenting capacity.

In addition to parents, when a child or young person is in a care placement outside the family (short or long term), retention of relationships with extended family or significant people (grandparents, siblings) is critical for their sense of identity to be preserved, unless it is contrary to the best interest of the child. Research on family reunification shows maintaining parent/family-child contact in the first 6 months of alternative care placement improves the chances of family reunification.

The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (2010) states that it is important to keep siblings together in any alternative care placements. When siblings are separated, it causes anxiety among them — with separated siblings often having to manage life-long issues of attachment, identity and loss in their lives [Neil, E., Cossar, J., Jones, C., Lorgelly, P., & Young, J. (2011). Supporting Direct Contact after Adoption. (1st ed.) London UK: British Association for Adoption & Fostering]. I know that Darul Ihsan Orphanages is one of the residential home facilities that provide care for both girls and boys with deliberate joint activities to facilitate sibling interaction. There are nearly ten sibling group placements within the home of 50 children.

I would like to propose that concerted effort be made to ensure contact time between siblings placed in different care placements — such as if one is in foster care and the other in residential care? In addition, we should extend family work intervention to the other sibling who is in the household to prevent further family separation and risk being referred to the care system in the future too .

Pushing for more foster/kinship care over residential homes

Mr Speaker, I commend the extension of childcare and infant leave to foster parents with Section 27 of the Bill to make fostering more accessible and recognised.

The demand for foster parents is more pressing now, as more children have entered the foster care system in recent years. In 2018, there were 1,163 reported cases, more than three times the 381 cases in 2014, mapping the increase of children in the foster care system in the same period at 1,163.

A children’s home, no matter how well-run, cannot replicate the “therapeutic elements” found in a family, said Dr. Yong Ming Lee of NIE. How can we encourage more fostering?

First, we could reframe foster care to also include kinship care and incentivise keeping children within their families by extending the amendments to Section 27C to enable grandparents and next of kin, such as uncles and aunts, to childcare leave and unpaid infant care leave. Hong Kong had piloted a 2-year project on Child Care Training for Grandparents with the aim to strengthen intergenerational family ties as well as scaling up child caring skills. Perhaps we can learn from such initiatives as we align family policies with Active Ageing in strengthening family bonds.

Second, I urge the Ministry to consider a tiered foster care system with tiered allowances based on the complexities. The amount a foster carer would receive then takes into account both the ‘placement type’, for example, care for children with special needs/disabilities alongside their ‘competence’ to provide care for the children. This has been implemented in many independent, for-profit agencies, charities and area councils in the UK.

Last but not least, I would like to propose tax relief for foster carers as means of recognition and retention as well as an incentive for more potential families to apply to the fostering scheme as how the Australian government has incorporated tax exemptions into their fostering provisions.

Upstream and Systemic: Mental Health and Community Involvement

And finally, Mr Speaker, let’s go upstream to look at preventive measures. Preventing delinquency and ongoing offending behaviors is as important as downstream interventions, if not more — so that our children and youths can avoid the harmful effects of detention and incarceration, and the potential involvement with the adult criminal justice system.

One of the risk factors for delinquency is mental health disorders which is increasing amongst children and young persons in Singapore. A record number of teenage boys committed suicide in 2018 according to SOS, and calls to SOS by children between 5–9 have jumped by an alarming 500% within three years. A global study showed that young persons diagnosed with major depressive disorder were found to be more vulnerable to involvement in violence. It also found that depression in children and young persons may be harder to recognise and could manifest itself as irritability and aggressiveness. There is accumulating evidence that depression can be predictors of youth delinquency.

Currently, the programmes and interactions for children and young persons by SSAs, schools and grassroots are designed based on offending behaviours and not on the risk factors such as mental health conditions. Can we create an inclusive environment by training community workers to identify and respond to these mental health risk factors as well?

Mr. Speaker, another risk factor is the community that a child grows up in. How can we do more to provide our children and young persons with a nurturing and stimulating environment, especially so in at-risk neighbourhoods?

Community workers at Beyond Social Services facilitate competent communities in rental housing neighbourhoods across Singapore. They believe in engaging children and young persons in the longer term, and nurture family and community support around them. An example of a participatory design project is at the Kebun Baru neighbourhood where community needs assessment conducted earlier in the year highlighted the needs of the children and young persons such as the lack of playground, halal food facilities and the feeling of a safe, inclusive environment. Currently, community-based conversations are being held with grassroots support to visualise what different segments of the community would envision for their neighbourhood.

Another example of repurposing the immediate environment is Project Hearts in Nee Soon East which also highlights active citizenry among its residents. The group saw a need to kick off with academic and play support programmes for the children in Yishun Blocks 269A and 269B. Bernard, born with a congenital development condition that affects the spine, leads the academic outreach of Project Hearts in collaboration with Singapore Red Cross. During the sessions, the void deck is converted into a study area with portable chairs and tables and the session caters to the needs of children. The children feel they are part of a community whilst their academic and play needs are being met in a holistic way.

It takes a community to raise a child, indeed. How can we enable more of such efforts that empower the community and therefore, our children and youths?

Conclusion

Children and youths are key drivers for inclusive growth and sustainable development in a society. Mr. Speaker, I’ll like to end by sharing these powerful words from Nelson Mandela — he said, “history will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of our children.’’ And also how we protect them, I believe. Because it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, and women.

We — the government, the community and the family — must share this paramount responsibility of protecting each and every one of our children and young persons and do everything possible to create enabling and nurturing environments for them to learn, to live, to love and be loved so they can thrive and contribute meaningfully to society.

Before I end, I would also like to take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to thank the everyday invisible heroes in child protection work from the Ministry and the community for their dedication and compassion.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

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A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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